The Peripatetic Reviewer
EDITOR, even an editor as iconoclastic as Henry L. Mencken, are at heart believers. Mencken, who never ceased to rage against ignorance and hypocrisy, lived with the belief that in the American language our native writers, blending the heritage of many blood streams, would one day produce literature of surpassing freshness and vitality. He looked for signs that this was coming and found enough of them to keep him buoyant. Indeed an editor, like a teacher, must fix his eyes on a polestar of such magnitude, if he is to maintain his sense of direction in the midst of all the alarms and crosscurrents which daily become more distracting in this atomic age. The star by which I steer is literature, and the concern I wish to share with you is whether enough of our young people have anything more than a flickering interest in the light which has warmed and sustained me. Is it true that English, whether written or spoken, by high school seniors and college freshmen, has been steadily deteriorating in this country for the past fifteen years?
The evidence is contradictory. Since the end of World War II, I have spoken on the campuses of more than a hundred and sixty of our colleges and universities. On such visits I invariably hear from the deans of admission and from members of the English departments the complaint that the entering freshmen are ill prepared, that they are doing less and less reading — in short, that most of freshman year has to be spent getting them ready to study freshman English. Yet on these same campuses, I frequently find small magnetic groups of upperclassmen who are throwing off sparks in the writing which they are doing under the direction of an inspired teacher. Wallace Stegner at Leland Stanford, Hudson Strode at the University of Alabama, Carroll Towle at the University of New Hampshire, the Avery Hopwood classes at Ann Arbor, English 77 at Yale, the personal direction which at Harvard Theodore Morrison provides in fiction and Archibald MacLeish in poetry — these are just a few of the electrically charged circles which, like Robert Hillyer’s classes at Delaware, lift the student out and up into a different world.
Both things seem to be going on at the same time: among the many, a slackening of interest and effort, a blindness toward poetry, and a disdain for reading; among the few, that blazing intensity of endeavor which a beginning writer must experience. I am concerned lest that apathy be enlarged. To me the love for books is inseparable from that sense of wonder which we all know, however briefly, in our adolescence, and what I am seeking is some way to exhilarate the experience of learning, especially the learning of English, when we are at the sunrise of our education.
All education is an awakening, and the teachers of English are the buglers who bring us to our feet. My friend George F. Kennan, our former ambassador to Russia, came to New England a month ago to address the school audiences at Exeter and Andover. He spoke to them much as he would have spoken to a college convocation, about our relations with Russia and his calm reasons for believing that we shall avoid war, and he was deeply impressed by the eagerness, the maturity, and the spirit of inquiry which he found at both of those great academies. “What responsive open-minded boys they are,” he said to me afterwards, and then after a moment’s reflection, he added, “They seem so different from the guarded, diffident, rather lonely undergraduates one sees on campus.” We are all aware of that change and of the inner uncertainty, the dread of Army life, the feeling of nervous insecurity which bring it about. So it seems to me appropriate to discuss a prescription for opening minds and for keeping them open to the beauty of writing.
In the beginning was the word — and it was read aloud. Our very first memory of books is of the voice of a woman - mother, favorite aunt, or teacher - who gave us the unforgettable pictures we retain of Bob, Son of Battle, of Mowgli, and of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. My family were great ones for Mark Twain. I cut my teeth on A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, and when I first heard Mark’s description of the Yankee standing before all the court as naked as a pair of scissors, I literally rolled on the floor with laughter. I think Mark Twain is much better to begin with than Dickens; there is something too brutal and too bleak about Dickens. A book like Life on the Mississippi is an American adventure told so naturally that a boy can identify himself with the cub pilot who ran away from home. There is something very persuasive about being read to, and in these days when there is so little privacy in the home and when television and recorded music fill every evening hour, perhaps the one sure place a child will hear a cultivated reading voice in quiet is in the schoolroom.
The veneration for the beautiful but dumb athlete has long since passed its peak in the Eastern colleges, and on many a campus the boy of intellect, the boy in the top tenth who can edit, act, or write is as highly regarded as a halfback. This form of compensation has been slow to reach the Big Ten and slower still to reach down into the high schools, but it is coming and as it comes it will enlarge the opportunities for what Gilbert Murray and John Masefield so encouraged at Boar’s Hill, the reading of poetry aloud; it will improve the chances for a more serious school play — no one can possibly act in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town without yielding to the compassion of the lines — and in prize speaking and debating it will give students a memorization of forceful, lucid English such as they never will hear in our singing commercials.
We live in a country which places too little value on the precise use of words. Partly this is the fault of our advertisers who commercialize cheap, bad English; partly it is the fault of the ghost writers who prepare the speeches for public men; mostly it is the fault of parents who are too careless to correct their children. America is the home of the five-cent cigar and the nickel phrase, the cheap cliché endlessly repeated; the home of bastard words like “contacted” and “winterize,” of barbarisms like “think modern” and “taste good like a cigarette should,” of glibness like “as of now” and “but definitely,” of sheer nonsense like “irregardless” nnd “most unique” (“unique" is one of a kind; either it is unique or it is not — throw away the qualifier!). Even our Secretary of State, in his infatuation with phrases like “massive resistance” and “agonizing reappraisal,” joins the vogue, and a spokesman for the State Department can hardly open his mouth without having four “massives" drop out.
I am not inveighing against American slang or American idiom, for they are, both of them, a very vivid muscular part of our new writing. What I am inveighing against is the American habit of using cheap, popular clichés without thinking.
How can teachers arouse their classes to an awareness of words? I know it can be done, for it was done to me. At Harvard, when I was trying to build up my vocabulary, it was Dean Briggs who encouraged me to carry slips of paper in my pocket. On one side I would write down a word that was new to me and that I was trying to learn how to use, and on the reverse I would write down its meaning and a sample phrase in which it was used. All Harvard undergraduates shuttle back and forth between the austerities of Cambridge and the amenities of Boston, and on those subway rides I played the word game with myself.
When I joined the Atlantic staff in 1924, I should think that one short story in every four was written in dialect. They came to us in Pennsylvania Dutch, in the dialect of the Kentucky mountaineers, and from the Cajun country in Louisiana. They were written in Swedish, Jewish, Irish dialect and in the accents of the Negro. Today dialect is fading from the scene, and the reason is clear enough; writers want to be thought of as essentially American, not as part of a minority, and what is more, they remember that those old stories in dialect were too often an excuse for farce or for sentiment rather than the heartfelt truth. But local color is irrepressible in this country and always will be; it crops out everywhere and students should be encouraged to look for it and use it to good effect.
The economy of the war years is to blame for the watering down of instruction in English. Reading is not as well taught as it used to be. I agree that the flash-card system is swifter, yet it has enormously increased the difficulty of those who are inclined to be left readers, and although there is no way of proving it, I believe it has produced some of the worst misspellers the country has ever seen. As for writing, the only way to learn to write is to write, and I deplore the doing away with of the daily theme and of the essay type of question on examinations. There is no doubt that the writing of the vast majority has suffered.
Finally, and most important, how can we induce in the eighteen-year-old a curiosity and then a desire for books? Required reading won’t do it — not when you can read A Tale of Two Cities in a Classic Comic; and while you love to think of parents and children being surrounded by books in the modern ranch home, the truth is that what they really want to surround is either the television screen or the hi-fi. Teachers and their allies, the librarians, are, I sometimes think, our last resort in these impressionable years. The libraries today are often a sanctuary for the quiet, reflective child. Some children, a few, are as fond of quiet as their parents, and here in their part of the library with the low shelves, the comfortable chairs, and the story hour, their minds can begin to feed and to imagine. If the zest for reading is aroused by ten, it won’t stop. As we grow older, we begin to take tips from those we respect. I remember in my freshman year a Sunday afternoon walk which I was privileged to take with Geoffrey Parsons, then an editor of the New York Tribune. Parsons was an omniverous reader, and in that walk by the sea he fired my imagination by what he said about three books I had never heard of: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, The Brass Check by Upton Sinclair, and Oscar Wilde by Frank Harris. One way or another I managed to borrow all three of them in the course of the next week.
These were impressive experiences, and I embarked on another which went deeper and lasted longer when I heard Chris Morley tell of the excitement of reading Keats’s poems against the background of Keats’s letters. One has to be a little bit in love to get the best out of that experience, and I was. Today if I found myself walking with a freshman as eager and inquisitive as a boy I remember, I would surely tell him about that book so full of youth and zest and wisdom, As I Remember Him, by the great American doctor Hans Zinsser; I would speak about Virginia Woolf’s luminous essays in The Common Reader, which seems to me the quintessence of biography and criticism; I would talk to him about Archibald MacLeish’s new play, J.B., and about the courage, the unshakable values, and the magnificent writing in Doctor Zhivago.
But first and last it is the teacher of English we come back to. She knows us with an almost medical intimacy, and she has it in her power to give us prescriptions which will change our lives. If she notices that we have a strange attraction for frogs, mud turtles, and garter snakes, she will see that a book about animals, a mature book like Tom Barbour’s Naturalist at Large, comes into our ken. If our eyes light up at the mention of the knights of the Round Table, she will know how to make Malory and Tennyson approachable. If we talk of a grandfather who came across the country in a covered wagon, she will remember The Oregon Trail, A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, and that other fine book, Forty-Niners, by Archer B. Hulbert. Lincoln’s birthday may prompt her to read aloud some chapters from Marching On, that picturesque novel by James Boyd, and the day before Washington’s birthday she might read to us Samuel Eliot Morison’s superb essay on Washington as a young man. And even if we resist books with all our might, even if the sports page is all we hanker for, she may leave with us, deep in the subconscious, echoes of a beauty we can never quite forget.